book reviews

Repost: A review of A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea

This book review appeared on my original blog on March 13, 2018. I am reposting it as/is.

I am fascinated by true stories, especially ones that involve survival against all odds.  I just finished A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea, a book written by Masaji Ishikawa and beautifully translated by Risa Kobayashi and Martin Brown.  This book was published on January 1, 2018 and already has a couple thousand reviews, most of which are very positive.  I am about to add my own very positive review of this very harrowing tale of survival.

Born in 1947 in Kawasaki, Japan, Masaji Ishikawa had a Japanese mother and a South Korean father, along with two sisters.  Ishikawa’s father was a violent alcoholic who brutalized his family and his enemies.  Because of his tendency to get into fights, Ishikawa’s father was known as “Tiger”.  He was belligerent and had few friends in Japan, which is likely why he was lured to repatriate to North Korea when his son, Masaji, was only thirteen years old.

Although the senior Ishikawa was not from the north, he was attracted by the claims that North Korea was a worker’s paradise.  And though his wife and children were not that enthusiastic about the move, it was settled and the Ishikawas were soon on their way.  It wasn’t long before they realized what a mistake it was to go back to Korea.  They left a life of relative comfort for one of abject poverty.  Very soon, “Tiger” found out that he couldn’t fight his way out of sticky situations anymore.  The government took everything from them.  Very soon, what little they brought with them from Japan was gone and they had to struggle hard every day just to survive.

Making matters worse was the fact that the Koreans looked down on the Japanese people who were there and the “returners”; that is, Koreans who repatriated to North Korea from Japan.  They were relegated to worse jobs and not educated as well.  Ishikawa’s family was given a “nice” house– nice, only because it had a tiled roof.  One day, a friend of the family’s came over, got drunk, and smoked a cigarette in bed.  He passed out and his cigarette caused a fire.  The house went down in flames and the family was forced to build a new one completely by themselves, right down to cutting down the trees used for the walls and roof.

Ishikawa writes of the trouble he had finding love.  He fell in love with one woman, but her family wouldn’t accept him because he was Japanese.  Later, he was paired up with a woman whom he described as “not beautiful”.  Their union lasted a year, long enough for her to present him a son.  Then she begged for a divorce and left him with the boy to raise on his own

He did manage to find a second wife, one with whom he was more compatible.  She could not live with him for some time, though, because she was caring for her grandmother.  They eventually had two more children.  Meanwhile, one of his sisters came home, having been cast out by her husband.  She was pregnant and had his two sons from a prior relationship with her.

I’m not sure how much input the translators had in how this book was written, but I found Ishikawa’s writing very compelling.  The book is written in the first person and is in a conversational tone, as if he’s sitting next to you talking to you about his experiences.  He seems like a very likable person, even when he becomes so desperately unhappy that he contemplates suicide.  Indeed, he was in the middle of his attempt when a co-worker– a guy who had the same job burning coal– came upon the author and saved his life.

That was only the first of several times when Ishikawa avoided what should have been certain death.  The story leads up to his dramatic and unlikely escape from North Korea in 1996.  Originally, he’d planned to try to save his family.  They were all starving to death.  Since Ishikawa was actually Japanese, he got help from unlikely sources… and ultimately, he lived to tell the tale.

Honestly, what really got to me was his description of what it was like to slowly starve.  He explains the desperate lengths people went to simply to subsist in a place where there simply wasn’t any food at all.  He writes of boiling pine bark for as long as possible to prevent the toxins from poisoning him.  Then, once he choked down the pine bark, which had been fashioned into something roughly resembling a rice cake, he suffered through gut pain and constipation so severe that he had to manually dislodge his fecal matter from his anus.  He explains how frustrating it is to read posters made by the government, instructing people on how to make their meager rations last longer so they could keep working.  And, of course, all of the posters included multiple exclamation points.  They were probably made by people who had relatively plenty to eat.

Ishikawa describes the physical changes that occur when a person starves.  For example, the fat on the lips and nose go away when starvation is extreme.  When the lips are gone, the teeth are plainly visible in a macabre fashion.  Ishikawa had to see his children looking like that.  He escaped because he wanted to rescue them.  Alas, escape to Japan was not all it was cracked up to be, either.  Now he’s left wondering what has become of his two surviving sons; he learned that his wife and daughter died, but lost contact with the son who had informed him.  He also has grandchildren languishing in North Korea.

I have read a lot of books about life in North Korea.  This book is one that will probably stay with me for a long time.  It’s not a story about being in a concentration camp, though those are compelling enough.  This is a story about a group that we don’t often hear about.  This was a man who, unlike most North Koreans, had knowledge of what it was like to be outside of the country.  He remembered a good life in Japan, even if his father was a brute.  He spent 36 years behind the fortified borders in North Korea, living the life of someone less than the average joe, yet not truly incarcerated.  

Needless to say, I heartily recommend A River in Darkness, if you can stand to reach such material.  It’s a very blunt look at what people in North Korea are living with under their current regime.  Perhaps it’s also a cautionary tale of what could happen to any of us if we allow tyrants to maintain power.  Five stars from me.

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